When, & How, Does it Make Sense to Invest in Your Career?

Photo by Mckibillo on Flickr

I’ve been eyeing this Illustration Portfolio program at NYC’s School of Visual Arts for a few weeks now. The more experiences I take to go out there and educate myself on both new areas and subjects I love, be it illustration, painting, marketing or web development, the more I want to keep learning and doing it. It’s true – knowledge is addictive, and NYC is like a gigantic melting pot for continuing education opportunities. I love it!

I was sitting in the coffee shop finishing up some work on an infographic resume for a client when my inner voice went off and told me, “I love doing this stuff so much – designing, layout, creating this great end product. I want to keep doing more of this!” And then I remembered the SVA course I had bookmarked, and made a not-so-impulsive decision to just sign up for it.

Now even though I went to art school at BU, I’m of the school of thought that creativity and artistic talent are something you develop within, and true talent can’t necessarily be taught. That’s the big difference between “artistic talent” and “artistic technique” – technique is taught, talent is inherent and developed on a personal level (often through learning).  But I’m sure there’s plenty to be learned here outside of how to draw, and I’m open to seeing what that is.  Anyway… I love the idea that the course focuses on both on the hands-on aspect as well as the business aspect of understanding the industry. Something to satiate both sides of my brain!

Regardless, several minutes after hitting “Submit”, I started to feel a small pang of buyer’s remorse. Even though it’s clearly a business and professional development-type investment, I still felt a sense of guilt in effortlessly shelling out $400. This, also after eating, drinking and sight-seeing my way across Europe for a week and a half. But it’s an investment…right? Right. But investments are often things of which we don’t see the immediate payoff, the return on that cash lump, the manifested benefit of our efforts, time and money, and that makes it difficult sometimes to see the upfront value.

A lot of people struggle with this when it comes to our businesses and our careers. Without a tangible result or benefit staring us in the face, it’s often difficult for us to justify investing in ourselves. Plenty of people struggle with the idea of whether or not to go back to to school, earn additional degrees or certifications, move to a new city (and ask our families to follow suit) to pursue a stellar job opportunity, even upgrade our wardrobe considerably so we can walk into that interview looking like a million and a half bucks.

Clearly when it comes to investing in our careers, it’s a personal matter that weighs the obvious financial concerns, our fears and hesitations up against our confidence in ourselves that the investment will produce a return – financially, professionally or otherwise. So when we’re talking about a job market where it takes more than an impressive degree or well-tailored suit to get your foot in the door, where does it make sense to invest in ourselves?

Invest In: Education and Training
Certain fields require advanced degrees, training and certifications, so it’s a no-brainer that your money is well spent on education if it’s a basic requirement for your career, or if you’re changing careers into a field in which this is the standard. Additionally, if you’re trying to make a transition into another department, say from print production to interactive media, perhaps it’s in your best interest to go out there and get some additional hands-on training from a professional or organization who can provide guided instruction and point you in the right direction. For career changers, this can be invaluable. What’s not valuable? Going back to school for a Masters or advanced degree as a plan B, because you can’t find a job or simply don’t like the one you have. There should be a vision and an end goal that clearly depicts why you’re going back to school or attaining that additional training, and how it’s going to directly benefit you in your career, whether it’s your current one, or a career you plan to transition into.

Invest In: Looking the Part (And Knowing What That Is)
When I was a recruiter for Digital People, 99% of my candidates walked into my office in jeans. Did I mention they all worked in the creative industry? Obviously this tactic wouldn’t go over quite as well if you’re walking into an interview at Deloitte. And were the roles reversed, it’s not likely that you would be taken seriously if you walked into Super Funky Digital Design Shop in a suit and tie. Why? Because that’s not the culture of the organization to whom you’re trying to appeal, and part of being the right candidate is knowing what the company culture is and looking the part.

And once you know what the part is, step it up two notches for the interview. If it’s business casual, wear a dress shirt, slacks and tie, and invest in a quality jacket you can carry in on your arm. If the office looks like the F train to Brooklyn, invest in a pair of clean, well-fitting jeans and maybe a funky, but professional button down shirt or blazer. Remember – no matter how good your resume is, if you look like crap when you walk in the door, that’s the message you’re sending about the quality of your personal brand.

Invest In: You… In the Future
One investment opportunity that all-too-often gets overlooked and under-prioritized is investing in yourself by contributing to an IRA, 401K or similar savings fund. Often times as part of your compensation package employers offer a 401K match up to a certain percentage point. This means if you contribute, say, 2% of your pre-tax earnings from each paycheck into your 401K, your employer will match that and put the same amount of money into your account, right along with your own personal investment. Essentially, free money! And putting that money into an account before your paycheck is taxed reduces the gross amount of income on which you will pay taxes. But even if your employer doesn’t have a match program, or you’re unemployed or work for yourself, you should absolutely have an investment fund setup if you’re 25 or older so you can start saving for the future you. And perhaps mini-you’s. Check out options offered by your bank, ING Direct or carriers like Principle or Charles Schwab.

Invest In: You… In the Present
It’s not all about the interview process, or what you’re doing from 9 to 5. It’s completely acceptable, and I would argue completely necessary, to invest in your own personal growth and well-being. It’s no secret that Americans are the worst when it comes to honoring our own mental and physical health and actually taking our personal, vacation and sick days. Guess what? If you’re sitting at your desk hacking and causing your coworkers to conjure up images of that nasty little green guy from the Mucinex commercial… they don’t want you there. Healthy workers are more productive workers, and productive workers have a higher rate of job satisfaction, make more money, and excel faster in their careers.

Your Paid Time Off (or PTO) is given to you as part of your compensation package for a reason – because you’re entitled to it, and it’s already been allocated and factored into your salary. Not taking time off when you need it isn’t being diligent and committed – it’s being irresponsible and leaving money on the table. And while you’re at it, join a gym.

You’ve heard the saying, “You have to spend money to make money”, and especially in business it’s true. But it’s not so much about throwing money at educational institutions, banks or the cashier at H&M. It’s about understanding that smart investing in yourself and your career is about having a clear vision around what you want the future return on that investment to be, whether it’s advancement in your current career, breaking into a new career, building financial security or growing your business to a point of sustainability. Weigh your options, create a plan of action, and know what you can reasonably expect to invest, and what you can afford to invest in that opportunity.

And sure, sometimes we have to go out there and simply risk it, invest in something that may or may not pan out the way we planned, and sometimes the return on that investment never happens. But one thing that is important is to not let the fear of money get in the way of potential opportunity, and making smart, strategic decisions when it comes to managing and driving our careers.


Exit Strategy Financial Budget Worksheet – 12-Month Financial Planning for a Successful Career Transition
One on One Career Consulting – Strategy & Accountability to Get You Where You Want to Go
The Personal Brand Portfolio – Your Creative Cure for the Common Resume


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